Why Research Will Define Your Employer Brand Success

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

This week we chat with Susan LaMotte, CEO and Principal Employer Brand Strategist for exaqueo, to find out how why putting the right time into researching and developing your employer value proposition is everything to your company.

Have a listen to the interview below, keep reading for a summary and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

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Why is it time to reset your approach to EVP and employer brand?

I think one of the biggest challenges with EVP and employer brand is that they are interchangeable terms, and a lot of organizations see EVP and employer brand as the same thing and they describe them as the same thing. But traditionally, if you look back to value proposition in its most nascent form from consumer marketing, it’s different from the brand. What I do when talking to clients is challenge them to think differently as to what an EVP is versus an employer brand is. The way that we break it down is we believe that your EVP is the sum of all of the themes that you have to offer of your value proposition in your organization. So if you were to ask your employees across the board what they value in their employment experience with you, your EVP is the sum of those themes. It’s essentially the collection of here’s what we can offer you as an employer to work here.

The brand, however, is a subcategory of that. What I mean by that is, you want to then look at all of those themes and determine, “Okay, we can’t sell all of these things but here’s what we should hang our hat on.” I’ll give you a really good example that I often use. When the iPhone was developed, the engineers went to the marketing team and said, “Hey, this is a cool new product. It can do these 50 things.” Engineers know that they can list all of the features and technicalities of a product, but it’s the marketer’s job to then turn around and look at their competitors, look at their customers, and what their goals are for sales. To determine, of all of those things that are cool about the product, what should they sell? You’ll never see a commercial advertising 50 different things.

If we take that and we apply it to employer brand and we think about all of the great things about working for an organization, then we look at our customers, our employees, and our candidates, and we look at the research, and we look at our competitors, our competitors for talent, then we can determine of all of these things that we offer, what do we most want to hang our hat on to differentiate ourselves and to drive our talent and business goals?

You say the brand is a subset of the EVP, please elaborate.

Your employer brand should be a subset of your EVP because you can’t sell everything that’s great about your value proposition. The value proposition should be used to help to continue to retain your employees. It should be used to evaluate, “Are these the things that we want to invest in to make our employees happy, to keep our employment experience strong?” But when you go to actually sell it when you’re branding it, you want to choose a subset of those things, the things you most want to hang your hat on.

And value proposition on the marketing side is used in a number of different ways as well. When you think about the definition, for example, of a CVP or a customer value proposition, it’s one statement that says, “Here’s why a customer should buy your product.” But when you think about value proposition overall, it’s what you bring. It’s the benefits, the quantified value of a particular product or service. What we believe a better way to describe, think about, and manage the way you market yourself as a place to work, is to start first with your value proposition, understand all of the things that you have to offer, and then choose of those things what you want to market, what you want to sell, because you can’t sell everything.

If the brand was something you couldn’t control, why would marketers spend billions of dollars every year branding and marketing their products? You can’t control it completely, that’s for sure, but you can decide what you’re going to focus on of the experience. So if you look at a car commercial, for example, that car company has to decide in the commercial, are they selling speed? Are they selling the engineering? Are they selling the driving experience? Are they selling the cool sunroof that’s new to this model that no other model has ever had? That’s what they’re deciding to brand or market.

So, when you think about the brand as the overall concept, yes, you can’t have complete control over it for sure. That’s part of the world in which we work and live. But, when you think about the verb, to brand something, we’re building our employer brand to put it into the marketplace. That’s an actual activity, right? That’s something you have control over, is what you market. To me, that’s the biggest mistake organizations are making right now. They’re not being strategic about the specific things that they want to brand and market. They’re just going out there and telling a story. They’re sharing so much information that it’s not clear exactly what they’re hanging their hat on. There are very few organizations that do a really good job of that.

What’s the role of research in employer brand management?

We look at our research as essential to building and uncovering the EVP and then ultimately building your employer brand. The reason that we see research as essential as it is, is because right now I think many employer brands are built in boardrooms and they’re based on assumptions. “I’ve worked at organization A for a really long time. I know the employees well and how they feel and what they want. I know what it’s like to work here.” But the challenge is that any individual who even makes it to a boardroom is not representative of the typical employee, and he or she, even if they started at a front line or they started at that level, they’re never truly going to understand what it’s like to work there for the average employee right now.

That’s why the research is so important because it not only supports assumptions that you may have but it also dispels those myths or assumptions that you have. That way you can make sure that as you’re building your brand and you’re marketing it, that you’re actually communicating the authentic experience rather than what you’re assuming that it is from the boardroom, from the ivory tower. So that’s the reason we do research. Our methodology also takes into account that research shouldn’t just be in the workplace. Research should be about the entire person, you bring your whole self to work.

We have a model called the whole self-model. The research that we do looks at the entirety of the person, who they are, what they value, what kind of relationships they have, and how that impacts the kind of employment experience they want, the kind of employment experience that they’re successful in, and how to find people that can be productive and engaged in your kind of environment and culture. So it’s not necessarily about culture fit but it’s more about what your employment experience is really like and finding people who thrive in that culture and experience. Research is the best way to uncover it so you truly know what’s happening, how people behave, and how work gets done.

How do you carry out employer brand research?

What we do is we go out to a representative sample of the workforce and we have our clients help us choose the right people to participate in the research. There are two things we do.

  • First, we focus on their high or good performers, the people that they would like to replicate. So, typically, the A/B plus players, those individuals who are performing well, that they say, “We want more of these kinds of employees.” That’s the first step.
  • The second step is to help them, we use a talent profile to help them ensure that there’s a diverse mix in all of our research activities. Diverse, of course, means gender and ethnicity, but it also means age, tenure. It means location, function, level.

We use all of these elements to find the right people to participate in the research activities and then we start first with a foundation or a baseline. We look for the common themes across all of our research set, but common themes from all of those employees. You don’t want to look for individual personas or common themes among a subset of employees yet because your brand has to have a baseline. It has to represent the entirety of the employment experience first.

Then we’ll look at data for a specific area. For example, we had one global client where we did an analysis of the research across the company. Then we look specifically at just the data we collected in China, to see where the commonalities and where the differences are. That allows you to have an employer brand that resonates globally but then also when you go to market, when you go to execute and activate that brand, you can adjust it to best resonate in a particular local market.

What’s the best place to start?

  1. So the first thing to do is see if there’s any data that you have already. You always want to start there. Most organizations have some sort of quantitative data to start with, whether it’s engagement survey data, employee surveys, or maybe focus groups you’ve already done. Then, look for where the gaps are. Do you have data on all populations? We were recently working with a client who had data from management levels but not from frontline staff. So it’s difficult to build an employer brand just based on that. You want to make sure it’s representative of the whole organization.
  2. The next thing to do is to look and see if your data also includes qualitative research. It’s important to have both. Quantitative engagement surveys tell a good story but they don’t tell the whole story because, in an engagement survey, you can’t ask why. You can find out if someone’s unengaged. The comments can give you a sense of their level of disengagement, but you can’t necessarily get to the root cause without asking the why question. That’s why focus groups are so important in consumer marketing. You can know, for example, that your target audience doesn’t like the handle of the vacuum that you’ve just invented, but you may not know why they don’t like the handle, or you may not know how to make it better until you actually talk to them or you see them in practice. Including qualitative or ethnographic research can be really helpful in making sure you get the full picture.
  3. Then the last thing, if you have a budget, I strongly encourage organizations to find an unbiased partner to help them collect the data. Employees are always going to be more honest if they’re asked this information offsite. So if they’re not on company property. They’re off property, they’re in a comfortable place out of the work environment. Then they’re also going to be more comfortable if there’s no managers, leaders, or human resources employees present. I mean, you would be surprised at the amount of data we’re able to uncover from employees because we make them comfortable, we put them in a comfortable environment. We’re able to help them feel like they can trust us and we also make sure that they know the level of confidentiality.

We actually don’t allow our clients to see our raw data.  We make sure that we tell the research participants that. We say that “Your company is not going to be able to see the raw data because we want to make sure you feel comfortable to be open and you trust us today.” That just opens the floodgates for the amount of emotion that we get. That’s where the real brand is.

What pitfalls should employer brand managers look out for?

One thing they should look out for is what I call the vanilla employer brand. They get all this great data, they’re able to dig in and uncover the authentic real experience, then, they start summarizing it into a summary statement or into those themes or pillars that are part of their brand and they start sharing it with leaders. All of a sudden leaders start saying, “I don’t like that word.” Or one very common thing we hear is, “I don’t think we should really sell that we have good work-life balance because we’re going to attract lazy people.” Or they might try to weave in things that are important to have but that isn’t actually part of the employment experience. We had a client one time where one of the executives said, “You know, there’s no mention of diversity here.” The reason there was no mention of diversity is because that wasn’t a strength of the organization.

If you start dumbing down the brand or making it vanilla, all of a sudden you sound like everyone else and you’re not reflective of your own employment experience and then you’re becoming that. You’re looking at just those vanilla terms of, “We want top talent. We want to be a best-in-class employer.” Instead, be true to yourself. If there are things as an employer that you want to be and you want to be able to brand as part of the employment experience, you better make sure they exist first. If they don’t, work on elevating or evolving your culture to help those exist, and focus on the reality of the employment brand experience at this point.

What companies are doing it right?

Well, I have to give a shoutout to my former employer, Marriott. What they’ve done is they’ve recently relaunched a new site, a new career site, that’s really focused on the journey, and they’re very clear about what it means. So, in hospitality, you can go work for a really small boutique hotel, you can work for a medium-sized company, or you can work for a really large hotel company like Marriott, especially with the recent acquisition of Starwood. What Marriott has done from an employer brand perspective, is they’ve messaged this idea of opportunity. What at do you see when you go to careers.marriott.com? You see “Here’s to the Journey” and “To making your own way.” And when you think about that, you think about a brand with so many options. They have so many individual hotel brands in their portfolios. It really is about making your way and making your choice.

Another brand I’ll call out is Princeton University. Princeton recently launched their very first employer brand, and you can find it at careers.princeton.edu. Princeton University is the number one ranked university in the United States. They have an incredibly long, hundreds of years of tradition, and one of the things that they struggled with was how to attract talent to a university with such tradition but perhaps with some stereotypes that are no longer true.  Princeton also is based in Princeton, New Jersey. They’re in the midst of pharmaceutical country. A lot of their talent competitors are big pharma companies that can offer a lot of benefits and perks that you can’t get from a nonprofit educational institution. And so, Princeton, with our help, in fact, developed the brand “More impact than you can imagine.” The resulting employer brand and creative assets are focused on the marriage between old and new. So you’ll see a bit of the tradition through some of the creative elements, but you’ll also get a more modern, honest feel. They’re very clear about what they have to offer and they’re very much focused on the employment experience truly is about impact. If that is what is most important to you, making an impact and being a part of a mission, then Princeton is the place for you.

What’s next for employer branding?

There’s a couple of trends that I see:

  1. One is a trend towards research, for sure. Organizations, I think, are really starting to see the value of research and understand the value, especially of the qualitative research supplementing the rigorous quantitative data that they already have from the systems that they have, the data that they have, etc.
  2. Trend number two is focusing on the idea of sources of influence. I’ve been talking about the source of influence for quite some time, and probably not loud enough because people are still talking about the source of hire. But if we pay attention to the influences that happen along the employment journey from interest or awareness of an employment opportunity all the way through to transitioning out, we can better market and brand our opportunities. I think that’s the second trend that’s starting to happen.
  3. The third is technology, and this trend is a little bit worrisome to me. Because I will say, I’d be a very rich person if I had a dollar for every new technology that claims to be able to develop or change your employer brand. Brands aren’t built on a system or a single piece of technology. The world’s best marketers and brand leaders will tell you that. And so, a lot of these technologies are really valuable and they can help you execute, they can be a channel strategy for you, they can be a tool for measurement, and if we’re helping to activate your brand. But they cannot single-handedly build your brand. It’s a trend that I think is really important but it’s also one that concerns me quite a bit and one that we talk quite a bit with our clients about because we want them to be aware of all of these technologies, but we don’t want them to think that any single technology is going to save the day for them or manage their brand for them.

Connect with Susan on Twitter, and check out The Employment Brand Forum on Facebook.


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